Crutch or Healing Balm?

Just last week I talked about the relationship between religious faith and health. This past Sunday Dr. Dale A. Matthews of Georgetown University provided further dramatic evidence at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Matthews reviewed 212 studies and concluded that three-fourths showed a positive effect of religious commitment on health. The evidence continues to mount that people who actively practice their religious faith are healthier—both physically and mentally. In fact, the positive relationship between religion and health is one of the hottest topics in medicine today. To date the U.S. government has funded more than 40 medical studies on spirituality and religion as therapy. Last year there were several national medical conferences on the spiritual aspects of health. Psychiatrist David Larson, director of the National Institute for Healthcare Research, recently spoke at a Harvard Medical School symposium entitled Spirituality and Healing in Medicine. He presented evidence that religious people are actually healthier than the general population, both mentally and physically. For example, in a literature review, Larson discovered that 19 out of 20 studies showed religion playing a positive role in preventing alcoholism. And 16 out of 17 studies showed a positive role in reducing suicide. Religious commitment was associated with lower rates of mental disorder, drug use, and premarital sex. People who attend church regularly even show much lower blood-pressure levels. One of the most striking differences Larson found is connected to divorce rates. Religiously committed people report much higher levels of satisfaction with their marriage and much lower rates of divorce. That, in turn, significantly reduces their incidence of problems related to divorce, such as stress, depression, and even physical disorders. For example, divorced men show a dramatic increase in cancer rates. As Larson puts it, "The effect [of divorce] is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for the rest of your life." These are facts we rarely hear about. Larson says the empirical data on the positive effects of religion are often ignored or even distorted in professional reports. There is, however, one small kernel of truth in the standard view that associates religion with psychological problems. Larson found that people who believe in Christianity but don't practice it do experience greater stress. Studies indicate that people who merely sit home alone and watch television evangelists without getting involved actually are worse off than other folks. In short, the inconsistent Christian suffers greater stress than the consistent atheist. But those who actively practice their faith can expect to enjoy better physical and emotional health than the general population. Why not share this commentary with your health-conscious secular friends who scoff at religion as a useless crutch for those who can't make it on their own. Because the evidence is increasingly demonstrating that an active religious faith can pay big dividends later. It's a prescription we can all live with.


Chuck Colson


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